Thursday, May 28, 2009

Chapter One

Eric could smell the smoke in the air as he woke. The apartment's previous tenant must have been at least a three-pack a day man, and the bargain-basement carpet shampooer the landlord had rented to clean the place out had done little to neutralize the thick smell of nicotine. For Eric, who was still trying to quit, the smell was maddening.

Still, though, a part of him was grateful for the smell. In the hotel he'd lived in for the first month in the city, he'd woken every morning with disorientation and dread. It got so the feeling of not knowing where he was became familiar to him -- that the disorientation was expected and almost comforting. He knew that, for the sake of his own mental health, he needed to find a more permanent living situation and do it quickly.

Hence, the crappy one-bedroom apartment on the ground floor of an ancient building in what the landlord assured him was a "revitalized" neighborhood. Disorientation and dread each morning had been replaced by need and bitterness, which of course wasn't pleasant, but Eric preferred it to the alternative.

As he rose from the thrift-store-quality twin bed and stretched out his arms -- his shoulder had decided to lock up on him again in his sleep -- Eric willed himself not to go straight to the emergency half-pack of Camel Lights that was singing to him from the top drawer in his tiny kitchen. Instead, he tried to preoccupy himself with getting ready for work.

Shower and shave. Eric still hadn't quite gotten used to the shaving bit -- up until very recently, he'd taken a great amount of pride in his facial hair, which he'd had in some form or another since graduating high school more than fifteen years before. Clean-shaven Eric still looked strange to him, peering back at him from the mirror and wearing a confused look as if to say, "Yeah, I don't recognize you either, pal."

After the stubble had been raked from his face with a dulling blade, Eric grabbed some clothes that looked fairly clean from the pile next to his bed -- a long-sleeved T-shirt worn under a polo shirt, dark blue jeans, and a pair of socks that still appeared more or less white. He laced his boots and checked the time on his alarm clock -- looked like he'd have time to catch breakfast on the way into the office.

It was already warm outside, like Eric remembered Florida being warm on summer mornings. The damp air made him start sweating under his long sleeves almost immediately, and he wondered how the weather here in the middle of the country could feel almost exactly the same as the weather on the Gulf Coast. He'd expected warm summers, but the humidity? Where was that coming from? Near as he was aware, Nebraska was a land-locked state.

The police cruiser was just driving by as Eric made it out to his car, a slightly worse-for-the-wear 1994 Thunderbird he was still getting used to driving. For the first several weeks, the cruiser and Eric had ignored each other, but nowadays Eric put on a big, goofy grin and waved at the car. Its driver had yet to wave back.

It wasn't as though Eric expected he and the cop to become bestest buddies or anything (he knew it was the same cop every time, as the number on the Douglas County Sheriff's Cruiser was the same every morning), but would it kill the guy to throw a wave? Honk the horn? Flash a grin? Give some indication that, yes, he knew Eric was there and Eric knew the cop was there. Did he actually think he was being subtle?

More likely, Eric thought, was that the guy wanted to be seen. He probably waited every morning just at the end of the block for Eric to pop out of his apartment, then drove by slowly, delivering a none-too-sly "I'm watching you" message. Eric wondered how many crimes were going on while this jackass was sitting at the end of the street idling, waiting to intimidate someone he hadn't even spoken to yet.

Probably not too many crimes, really. Eric had lived in more than one big city in his lifetime, and Omaha struck him as sort of a third-grader's idea of what a big city was like. For the sheer size of it, he had yet to find a single strip club or a bar that stayed open past one in the morning. It was as if someone had taken, for example, Chicago, then thrown out all of the interesting people and Disneyfied whatever was left. All of the "undersirables" in the city seemed to be corralled in the Northeast corner, and the rest of the town was thick with fat, middle-class white families.

It actually reminded Eric of a place that was perpetually stuck in an 80s sitcom. Kids probably still hung out at the fucking *mall* here, for Christ's sake. Even the radio stations were lame, pumping out only the most nonoffensive of the oldies or, worse, the current Top-40 crap. With his first paycheck from his new job, Eric had probably spent more than the car was worth on an in-dash MP3 player, as listening to the censored-by-majority-opinion radio was bound to drive him to drink again.

So, as he started up the once-proud Thunderbird, Eric blared The Exploited's "I Hate Cop Cars" as a none-too-subtle "fuck you" to the Sheriff's Cruiser that was still creeping slowly down the street. He rolled down both of the power windows, amazed that they still worked, and again waved at the cop as he passed him and headed out onto the street.

Work was less than a ten-minute drive away, in the area that Omaha proudly called its Downtown. Two not-very-tall skyscrapers seemed to be the main centerpiece of the area, and the natives that he'd spoken to were actually in awe of the larger one, which had apparently just been constructed a few years before. It stood a pitiful 40 stories high, and looked like it was designed in a Kindergarten art class. Unfortunately, Eric had to see it every day -- he worked just down the street at a much older, more run-down iron-fronted building that seemed much more at home in the area.

Eric parked the Thunderbird in one of the many downtown parking garages, this one a little over a block away from the office. The walk was only brutal in the winter or the dead of summer, and it was now the latter. Trying to think about anything but the fact that the walk from the garage to the office was exactly one cigarette long, Eric stuck to the shadowed side of the street, still sweating slightly as he approached the door to the office.

Security Software Associates, Inc., took up the third floor of the building that Eric guessed had once been a bank headquarters. The company made enterprise-level data-encryption software, and Eric was employed as a base-level software engineer. The job was $18 an hour, 40 hours a week, and painfully boring. Eric was pretty sure he could do the work in his sleep, which, he supposed, wasn't far off from the plugged-into-an-iPod-starting-at-the-screen state he ended up in most days.

There was a small greasy-spoon diner on the first floor of the building, built entirely to cater to the several companies in residence inside. Six tiny formica four-tops crammed the small space, and a long, narrow window afforded every one of those tables a view into the kitchen. During the lunch hour, the place was always packed, but Eric never had a problem finding a table for breakfast. Most of the people in the building tended to show up right at eight, hung-over and with hair that had not yet dried from a quick dash through the shower. Eric had made a habit of showing up just after seven when the place opened -- the diner's single waitress never had to ask for his order anymore, as it was always the same. She just nodded to him as he took a seat and filled his coffee cup, then went off to tell the cook to prepare the two egg whites, dry toast, and hash browns.

He checked a couple of news sites on his phone as he sipped the first of many cups of diesel-grade coffee the day had in store. The @Omaha_dot_com version of the town's local paper didn't have too much of interest, but it rarely did. @cnn had an unintentionally amusing story about the global economic crisis, which pretty much could have been restated as one paragraph repeating "We're all doomed!" Eric vaguely remembered when CNN had reported on interesting things, like science and technology, rather than sensationalizing every bit of celebrity gossip they could get their hands on.

As he plowed into his breakfast, Eric sighed internally. He liked to tell himself that he hadn't always been this cynical, and that recent events had just made him that way. He tried reminding himself that Omaha wasn't such a bad town, really, and that there were plenty of worse places he could have ended up. This, too, was part of his morning ritual, this resigned internal pep-talk. As with most mornings, it failed to work yet again.

The waitress -- she never wore a name tag, and Eric had never asked her name -- was clearing the plates and refilling his coffee cup when Kenny plopped down in the metal-and-plastic faux-50's-diner chair across from Eric. Kenny was the guy at the office who spent more time wandering around trying to be pals with everyone than getting any work done. Though it had been nearly a decade since Eric had last worked in an office, he remembered the type well -- there seemed to be one in every workplace, and they were all, without question, as annoying as fuck.

"Hey, Big E! How's it hangin' this morning, my man?" Kenny gushed, looking for all the world like he still thought he was in the same fraternity house where he'd puked away his college career several years before.

Eric wasn't in the mood for company that morning, but really, he hardly ever was. Gone were the days when Eric could just tell someone like Kenny to fuck off. He remembered those days somewhat fondly now, and how, back then, if such a confrontation got physical, so much the better. It was one of the few (read: many) things Eric missed from his old life.

Eric sighed, wishing he could just deck Kenny right in his stupidly grinning face and knock out some of that expensive, parentally funded dental work. Instead, he forced a smirk.

"Kenny," he replied flatly.

"Toppin' off on the coffee before work, eh? Good plan, man, good plan. Think I'll join you. Darlene, can I get a cup of regular, hon?"

The waitress smiled at Kenny and nodded. For all of the shit he'd just been mentally giving the guy, Eric admitted that at least Kenny had bothered to learn the waitress's name, which put him a couple of rungs up on the sociability ladder from Eric. He knew he'd have to try to be, in some ways, more like Kenny from now on, as painful as that thought was.

"So, Big E. It's already gotta be 90 degrees out, and it's just going to get hotter. What's with all the sleeves, bro?"

Eric had already been asked the same questions several times over the summer, and he couldn't believe his co-workers had nothing better with which to occupy their minds than his wardrobe choices. Sadly, though, he still hadn't managed to come up with a decent response.

"I'm. . . not a big fan of short sleeves, I guess. I get cold easy," he shrugged. Smooth, he thought. You didn't sound like a developmentally challenged child at all, there, Chief.

"Man, I love that they let us wear pretty much whatever we want here. Last place I worked, full suits, every day, no matter how hot it was," Kenny rambled. Darlene filled his coffee cup, and he finally stopped talking long enough to pour some of the beverage into his head.

Eric took a moment to study Kenny's wardrobe du jour -- a pair of pleated khakis and a peach-colored, short-sleeved knit shirt. Was that what he was supposed to be dressing like to fit in? If so, Eric decided that he'd rather be thought of as that quiet, strange guy who never left his cubicle.

Chapter Two

After eight hours of stomping huge bugs in line after line of drool-enducingly boring code, Eric powered down his Dell laptop and vacated his cubicle in favor of the still-hot downtown streets. As he fired up the V8, he noticed that the temperature gauge was already creeping toward the center line -- not a good sign. Eric resolved to take a look at the engine the next morning, Saturday (assuming the Thunderbird made it back to his apartment).

The old coupe did, indeed, make it back to the apartment, though the temperature was solidly in the red zone when Eric killed the engine. A loud pop echoed through the street, followed by a long hiss as superheated engine coolant flooded out from under the T-bird's hood. Eric watched the steaming green mess flow downhill toward the sewer grate and shrugged. Definitely should take a look at that.

Eric's wrists were killing him, and he was looking forward to getting into a short-sleeved shirt as soon as he got into the apartment. It wouldn't be particularly hard to find one, Eric saw as he walked into the apartment -- his few clothes were strewn all over the living room, and there was a rather large man in a black suit rummaging through the drawers in his kitchen.

Over the past several years, Eric had gotten into the habit of sizing other men up as soon as he met them. Men like Kenny, for example, were easy prey -- one or two solid hits to the skull and they'd go straight down. The man now smoking a cigarette and tearing through his belongings, however, was a different story altogether.

Even hunched down, Eric could see that the man was tall, though not so tall as to be awkward or ungainly. He was also heavy, but not in the typical American too-many-donuts way -- Eric estimated his weight just north of 200, most of it muscle. The gun bulge evident in his suit jacket wouldn't make the guy any easier to take in a fight, either. Eric should have been worried about the huge, buzzcut guy rifling through his possessions, but instead he just sighed.

"You know, you could have called first," Eric greeted, tossing his keys on the small table next to the door.

"Read the terms of the agreement you signed. Surprise visits. Wouldn't be much of a surprise if we called and gave you time to get rid of all of the guns and drugs, would it?"

"One, no guns or drugs. You've probably figured that out by now. Two, technically the person who signed that agreement doesn't exist anymore, does he? And three, would it have killed you to put the stuff you threw out of my closet back in the closet?"

The Federal Marshal straightened up and snuffed out his cigarette in Eric's kitchen sink. He immediately pulled a pack of Marlboro lights out of his suit jacket and lit another, then offered the pack to Eric.


"You're an asshole, Dean."

Dean smiled, showing two rows of straight, nicotine-stained teeth.

"I'm going to need to search your vehicle, as well," he said, inhaling from his cigarette.

Eric picked up his keys and held them out to the Marshal.

"You want these? Or does breaking and entering make you feel more manly?"

Marshal Dean snatched the keys from his hand and walked out the door.

"See if you can fix the radiator while you're out there," Eric grumbled. He walked over to his fridge, pulled out a can of @red_bull_energy, and downed it in a shot. It cooled him off a little, but not near enough, and the air conditioning in his apartment was of course broken, so he downed another, heart palpatations be damned.

Eric plucked a brown T-shirt off the couch and stripped off the long-sleeved shirt and polo, then replaced them with the lighter shirt. The tattoos on his forearms were visible now, but he didn't care -- Dean had seen them already, and it was too damned hot to keep schlepping around his own place in too many layers. He rubbed the long, thin vertical scars starting at the underside of his wrists all the way up to his elbows -- working on a keyboard all day managed to irritate them nicely.

Now, don't fidget, my boy, or Russel here might accidentally nick an artery.

Eric shivered in spite of the extreme heat and shook his head violently. He'd had a bad enough day already without thinking of that.

Mind the tattoos, Russel. It's beautiful work, isn't it? Hate to spoil them.

Eric splashed water on his face in the kitchen sink, trying to ignore the extinguished cigarette Dean had left there. His short hair now wet and plastered to his forehead, Eric collapsed on the couch. He tried to flip through the channels on the TV for a few minutes, but found it hard to concentrate on much. He turned off the TV, tossed the remote on the cigarette-burned surface of the coffee table, and waited for Dean to come back in and give him more shit.

About five minutes later, Federal Marshal Ryan Dean did, in fact, return to the apartment. He pulled up one of the kitchen chairs across from Eric, sat down, and pulled out his notebook.

"Staying out of trouble?" Dean asked, clicking his pen.

"Of course. I don't think there's any trouble to get into in this town."

"Work going all right?"

"It's mind-numbingly boring and way beneath my skill level. Other than that, it's lovely."

"Have you contacted or attempted to contact any friends, family, or other associates in the city of Tampa?"

"I have no friends, family, or other associates, in Tampa or otherwise."

Dean finished scribbling on his notepad and returned it and the pen to his suit jacket.

"Look, Eric. I know we give each other a lot of shit, but sadly, I really do care about you making a life here. So, really. . . if you do have any problems, I want you to tell me about them."

Eric blinked -- this was the first time in months that Dean had acted remotely human towards him.

"Um. . . no. I mean, apart from being bored, nothing wrong, really."

"Good. Just stay out of trouble. Follow the rules. It's tough starting over, but I've seen guys make it," Dean handed Eric a business card, "If you need anything, just give me a call or shoot me an email, all right?"

"Uh, yeah."

"Also, we'll need you to come into the office sometime in the next week. Nothing huge, just a post-trial debreif. Carve out a couple of hours and give me a call, yeah?"

"Will do."

"OK. Oh, and you might want to look at your radiator. Damn thing's leaking all over the street," Dean grinned as he walked out the door.

* * *

The next morning, Eric was up at 6:30. After a quick two-mile run around the neighborhood (which sucked with a long-sleeved running shirt) and a 45-minute weight workout in his apartment, he changed into a pair of jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt and dove into the engine compartment of his Thunderbird.

The radiator was cracked, and would need to be replaced. Eric was just about finished removing the old one when he saw blue and red lights flashing behind the T-bird. He stood and wiped off his hands on his jeans, and came face to face with the Sheriff's Deputy that had been driving past his house every morning.

"Um, hi," Eric started.

"Hands where I can see them," @JohnnySix spat. He was shorter than Eric, but visibly a lot stronger. Eric put his chances at beating the Deputy in a fight at about 60%, but he wasn't going to go slugging a cop. Not anymore.

"Sure thing, Deputy," Eric sighed, raising his hands to shoulder level. "Mind if I ask what this is about?"

"The less you say, the better, Killer," Johnny growled, reaching slowly for the handcuffs on his belt.

Eric had been introduced to Deputy Jonathan Teal four months ago upon relocating to Omaha. It was standard Marshals Service practice to alert local law enforcement when a Federal witness was being placed in their town via Witness Security, and Johnny Teal had been the officer assigned to keep tabs on Eric. On that day four months ago, Teal hadn't even bothered to look Eric in the eye or shake his hand -- he'd spoken only with Marshal Dean, acting as if Eric was beneath his contempt.

Johnny cuffed Eric's hands behind his back and ushered him to the waiting cruiser. Eric decided that his best bet was just to play along until he found out what the hell was going on. He knew he still had Dean's card in his wallet, so if they gave him a phone call, he supposed he'd use it.

Johnny didn't say a word on the way to the station, which left Eric with little to do but stare at the back of the Deputy's head. He guessed that Johnny was a couple of years younger than him, probably not yet even 30, but the man's hair was already turning grey. He also had a long, wide scar on the back of his neck, one that looked decades old.

The ride to the Douglas County Sheriff's Station wasn't a long one -- it was just off 16th and Leavenworth Streets downtown, not far from where Eric worked. Still, any ride with a short, burly cop who obviously didn't care much for him seemed much longer than it was. By the time the cruiser stopped at the station, Eric was racking his brain to figure out what he might have done to bring him there. He'd kept very much to himself apart from work and eating out once in a while because he was too lazy to cook (and he never was a terribly good cook, anyway). As near as he could remember, he hadn't even fractured a speed limit since he'd been in town.

"Out of the car, Killer," Johnny barked, throwing open the cruiser's back driver door.

Eric allowed himself to be roughly trundled into the building, though his urge to slip the cuffs and put Johnny on the floor was definitely rising. Johnny tossed him into an elevator, and a few seconds later, hustled him through a door that had "Criminal Investigation Division" painted on the frosted glass. All the way in the back of the large, dimly lit room was a door that said "Shift Commander." Johnny stopped manhandling Eric long enough to knock on this door.

"Come in," a deep voice came from the other side of the door.

Johnny opened the door and pushed Eric into a chair across the desk from another man, slightly older, in a County Sheriff's uniform. @HuskerNate79 wasn't a Marine, and he never had been, but he looked like one. He had a short, efficient haircut, was meticulously clean-shaven, and rose from his desk chair with an air of command and authority that Eric had only previously seen in members of the military.

"Thank you, Deputy Teal. You can close the door," Deputy Nathaniel Moore said.

Johnny closed the door and posted himself next to it like a sentinel, keeping his eyes locked on Eric as if he expected the man to spring from the chair and kill them all.

"You'll forgive me for the early-morning wakeup call, Mr. Hawkins, but we seem to have a bit of a problem here."

Eric was still getting used to the last name Hawkins, but if he had any doubt that Nathaniel was addressing him, it was erased by the commanding Deputy's intense focus in his direction.

"We do?" was all Eric could think to say.

"Indeed. I'm sure you've noticed during your hundred or so days in this town that we're used to a nice, quiet, pretty stress-free life around here."

"If you mean boring, then, yes. I have noticed that."

"Call it what you want. But not two weeks after you moved from the hotel to your apartment, we found a body on the banks of the river. We do get a few of those around here -- bodies, that is -- but not the way this man was found."

Nathaniel flipped open a file folder and pulled out a crime scene photograph. It looked to have been taken in daylight, and there was, indeed, a body splayed out by the banks of a river, shot more than once in what used to be his head, but was now unrecognizable. The man's left arm had also been severed at the elbow.

"Now, unfortunate and a bit gruesome, to be sure. But not a pattern. Once is unfortunate. Twice is bad luck," Nathaniel continued, opening another folder and showing another picture to Eric. The setting for this one was different -- warehouse, maybe? -- but the subject was the same. Another male body, headshot all to hell, left arm severed at the elbow. "But three times, Mr. Hawkins, is a pattern."

Nathaniel opened yet another folder and produced yet another picture. This one was in an alley, but it was familiar nonetheless -- another body, face down in the dirt, butchered in the exact same fashion as the previous two.

"We found number three late last night. So, I made some calls to a friend in Tampa P.D., and he emailed me these."

Nathaniel pulled three just-printed photos off of his desktop. The setting was again different -- an industrial port -- but in each of the three photos were men splayed on the concrete, shot several times in the head.

"Recognize the work, Killer?" Johnny growled at Eric.

"What was the time of death on your victims, if you don't mind my asking?"

Nathaniel shrugged, as if to say What could it hurt?

"Last one was killed around noon yesterday."

"Ooh. Sorry, can't help you out there. I was at work noon yesterday. Your boy here," Eric nodded at Johnny, "Could tell you that, I'm sure, as he makes a habit of driving by me every four hours or so."

Johnny grumbled something under his breath, and Eric tried not to smirk.

"Look, I know, it's tempting. Something fucked up happens, you pull in the new guy in town with a jacket. Can't say I'd have done much different myself. But, believe it or not, I have been keeping to myself, and keeping to the rules of the program."

"You'll forgive a bit of skepticism, Mr. Hawkins, but it's not easy for me to believe a man with three bodies on him," Nathaniel said.

"Well, technically, Eric Hawkins has no criminal records, but that's just splitting hairs. Check with the U.S. Marshals Service, and you'll find out that those three bodies were classified as killing in self defense, and that any charges their killer may have faced were dropped."

"Cut the bullshit, Killer," Johnny sneered.

"Thank you, Deputy Teal. I think I can handle it from here. Please remove Mr. Hawkins' restraints and return to work," Nathaniel glared at Johnny. Johnny straightened up immediately, uncuffed Eric, and left the room.

"I apologize for him. Johnny's a good cop, but he's a bit of a broadsword. You need someone beat on, he's your man. You need critical thinking, look somewhere else," Nathaniel sighed.

"I know the type," Eric nodded, rubbing his wrists.

"It goes without saying, Mr. Hawkins, that we're going to be keeping a bit closer an eye on you. I doubt you're necessarily responsible for these recent bodies we seem to have found ourselves saddled with, but I would also be remiss to rule you out just because you seem nice enough."

"Understood. Look, Deputy, you seem smarter than your dog out there. I can assure you that I have nothing to do with those three unfortunate souls, but I did notice something in the last picture you showed me."

Nathaniel handed Eric the picture, and Eric nodded. He turned the picture around to face Nathaniel, tapping the back of the corpse's neck.

"Russian Mafia. I've. . . seen them before."

"How can you tell?"

"The tattoo on the back of the guy's neck. It's a little covered by all the blood, but you can just make it out."

Nathaniel took the picture back and looked closer. There was, indeed, a tattoo on the back of the man's neck -- thin and faded, the Cyrillic characters СЛОН.

"What does it mean?"

"It's an acronym for Solovetsky Lager' Osobogo Naznacheniya, a Soviet prison camp that closed years ago. It's a popular tattoo in Russian prisons, though, with a different meaning." Eric decided not to mention that the tattoo was generally understood to mean Smert' Legavym Ot Nozha, or "death to cops from a knife."

"Now, that just means the guy probably spent some time in a Russian prison. But the severing of the left arm is what clinches these guys as Mafia. They'd all have a tattoo there, a kind of a cross wrapped in barbed wire or a spiderweb design. Someone wanted to throw you off the trail by getting rid of the identifying marks -- they just must not have noticed the one on the back of this guy's neck," Eric explained.

"You're sure about this?"

"Pretty sure."

Nathaniel considered for a moment. It was obvious to Eric that the Deputy didn't terribly like a scumbag from Witness Security's low end of the food chain coming into his house and telling him what was what -- but he probably knew from Eric's record that this particular scumbag had spent several years inside an organized criminal organization. Eric's experience as a criminal lowlife might just be the most useful break they'd had.

"All right. I'll get Deputy Teal to take you back home. Just do me a favor and stay outof trouble, please?" Nathaniel asked.

"That's pretty much my entire mission objective these days, Deputy," Eric nodded.

Chapter Three

Tampa, Florida, 2001

Eric Austen hadn't had the best day -- or the best four months, really. That morning, just before his @Sprint service had been cut off for nonpayment, he'd called to check his bank balance. It was still positive, but only just. Earlier that year, he'd been pulling down just north of $65,000 a year -- now he was worth exactly $40.52.

The unemployment had run out four months back, but he'd managed to survive off the sale of his BMW 525 up until recently. The 1988 Toyota Tercel he'd been driving around burned as much gas as it did oil, but it got him to and from job interviews for the first two of those months. After that, though, it mostly got him to and from the bar.

He'd moved out of his nice Hyde Park apartment during the second month of unemployment benefits, right about the time he'd bottomed out his savings account. His new neighborhood, just off of Euclid Avenue and Dale Mabry Boulevard, wasn't nearly as swank, but it was conveniently close to the Last Chance Tap Room. Eric found the name kind of fitting now as he strolled through the doors at two p.m.

"Hey, Eric. A little late today, aren't we?" Teresa, the weekday bartender, greeted with a gap-toothed smile. She looked every day of 55 years old, but sadly, she was only 40.

"Business meetings. All very high-powered stuff. You know how it is," Eric shot back, taking his usual seat at the end of the bar.

"Vodka? Bottom shelf?"

"Unless you suddenly got something lower."

"By the glass or by the bottle?"

"Bottle, please."

"Aha. Rough day?"

"Aren't they all."

Teresa plunked the cheap glass bottle down in front of Eric, then pulled a cocktail glass that looked none too clean from under the bar. Eric uncapped the bottle and filled the glass to just under the rim. A mock-toast to Teresa, and the entire glass went down the hatch in one shot.

It only took Eric an hour to finish the first bottle, and he was well into a second before another customer came into the bar -- or, more accurately, two. Neither of them were regulars -- Eric had been into the bar every day for the past couple of months, and he'd never seen either of the two men. Teresa seemed to know them, though -- she immediately straightened up and went for the top-shelf gin.

"Hi, Boss," Teresa stammered, obviously struggling to remember how to make a martini.

"Teresa!" the smaller of the two men, slight and dressed in a white suit, beamed. "You're looking lovely, as ever, dear. And you're already making me a martini! How fabulous!"

The other man might as well have been a statue with moving legs for all the animation he showed. He was taller than the other man, and rail-thin. He was dressed in black cargo pants and a black T-shirt, and had long, dark hair that was tied into a tight ponytail at the base of his skull.

"Teresa, we're going to have some associates meeting us. Your finest table, please," the smaller man said, accepting his martini and taking an experimental sip.

Teresa scurried from behind the bar and hightailed it to the establishment's only real serviceable table, which was just behind Eric's left shoulder. She quickly wiped down the cigarette-scarred imitation wood as best she could, then brushed off each of the four ancient chairs around the table.

"Marvelous, Teresa dear. Now, when my associates come in, you just let them know I'm right back here, yes? That's a good girl. Off you go, then."

The two men sat down, the smaller one casual, leaned back in his chair. The tall, thin one resembled a statue now more than ever. He sat completely rigid in his chair, not even moving a facial muscle. Eric shrugged and went back to his more-rubbing-alcohol-than-vodka vodka. A few moments later, the double doors at the front of the bar flew open, flooding the place in unwelcome daylight.

"Julian! Khuyesos'!" a large man in a black silk shirt and light grey slacks screamed.

"Oh, over here, Vladimir darling!" the smaller man at the table waved jovially. "And language, please, darling. Language."

Vladimir stalked over to Julian's table, followed by two younger men in jeans and T-shirts. Out of the corner of his eye, Eric noticed that both of them had tattoos on their arms -- stylized crosses on the inside of their left forearms, to be exact. Vladimir took a seat, as did one of his pals; the other remained standing.

"Now, Vlad. What could possibly make you want to call me something so terrible?" Julian smiled, sipping from his martini.

"You know what the problem is. That last batch of merchandise you give us is shit."

"Oh, come now, Vlad. A young, entrepreneurial Russian gentleman like you should have had no problem unloading that."

"I don't want to unload. I want our money back, and I want it now," Vladimir spat.

"Do you have a receipt?" Julian grinned.

"What are you talking about, receipt? You have ten seconds to get our money, or my boys here," Vladimir opened his arms wide, and both of his companions drew handguns.

The tall, thin man who came in with Julian shifted in his chair.

"You keep that psycho in his seat, Julian, or you get shot in the face," Vladimir warned.

Eric could never figure out why he did what he did next. Perhaps it had been that the last several months of his life had been such shit that he'd wanted to explode for a while now. Perhaps it was because he didn't like this Russian guy coming in and ruining his quiet drink. Whatever the reason, Eric turned and pounced on the thug standing behind him, knocking the man to the floor. At the same instant, the tall, thin man moved like a shot, rising and driving his fist right into the other thug's nose, knocking him out in one punch.

Eric was struggling on the floor with the other thug, who was trying to get his gun up from the floor. Eric brought his elbow down hard into the thug's jaw several times. He only stopped when he realized the thug wasn't moving anymore.

Eric grabbed the gun, a big monster of a hand cannon, and jumped up from the floor, slamming the barrel into the back of Vladimir's skull.

"Oh, wow," Julian chuckled, "The drunk at the bar got the drop on you, Vlad. You really need to run your boys through some drills or something."

"This man works for you?" Vladimir growled through gritted teeth.

"He does now," Julian shrugged. "Now, Vlad. Here's what you're going to do. You're going to drag those two failures out of here, and you're going to unload the merchandise I gave you. You're going to be happy about it, and you're not going to show your face in this town again. Yes?"

Vladimir started to rise from his chair. Eric smacked him on the back of the head with the barrel of the gun.

"Answer the man," Eric said, trying to keep his voice steady and his words relatively unslurred.

"Yes. You will regret this, Julian."

"Not as much as I'd regret wearing that shirt, darling."

Muttering in what Eric assumed was Russian, Vladimir grabbed the thug Eric had knocked out by the leg. The other was just regaining his wits, and followed Vlad out of the bar.

"Well, then. First thing, we're going to have to buy you a drink, aren't we?" Julian smiled at Eric. "Teresa, what is the gentleman drinking?"

"Well vodka," Teresa replied.

"Not anymore. Now he's drinking @Smirnoff_EXP. So, I'm Julian, and this is my associate, Russel," Julian nodded at the thin man. "Tell us all about yourself."

* * *

Tampa, Florida, 2004

"See, but that's the problem with reality TV. Since it's so cheap to make, they're just going to keep putting that crap out there as long as they can get away with it," Eric complained, piloting the BMW X5 through the downtown Tampa streets. It had just finished raining, but the heat and humidity hadn't broken much -- he had his window down and the stereo was playing "Chemical Warfare" by the Dead Kennedys.

Russel shrugged in the seat next to him.

"You're a real conversationalist, you know that, Russ?"

Russel didn't bother to shrug this time. The BMW pulled up behind a large, industrial warehouse just off of Highway 60, and both Russel and Eric got out. Russel banged on the metal door at the back of the warehouse, and it opened a crack. In a flash, Russel's right combat boot shot out, knocking the door wide open. Eric drew the Glock .30 from inside his short-sleeved cabana shirt and followed Russel inside.

There were three men inside the warehouse, but by the time Eric's eyes adjusted to the bright light inside, Russel had already knocked one out and had another in a choke hold. Eric leveled his gun at the third.

"You're late on a payment, Andy," Eric chided the only man still standing.

"I have it! Right here!" Andy held a duffel bag high over his head, and Russel, having now choked out the second man, snatched it from him. He looked inside the bag and nodded to Eric.

"OK, Andy. You get a pass, for now. Don't make us come get it next time, yeah? I had shit to do tonight," Eric winked.

Andy just nodded slowly. He kept his hands out at his sides, trying to appear as nonthreatening as possible, as Russel and Eric walked back out the same way they had come in. Russel was just closing the X5's tailgate after placing the duffel bag inside when Eric's phone rang.

"Hey, Julian," Eric greeted.

"Eric, my boy. Did Andy part with my weekly tithe?"

"Eventually, yeah."

"I do hope you didn't have to hurt him too severely."

"Not as such, no."

"Well, listen, my boy, here's the problem. Even though I told him not to, Andy's been dealing with the Russians behind my back. You remember how I asked him not to do that?"

"Of course."

"Well, we can't just let that go, now can we? Otherwise, other folks in this town will just think they can do whatever they please regarding certain types of business, and then where will we be?"

Eric didn't answer. He felt acid starting to simmer in the pit of his stomach. He knew what Julian was going to ask next, and he wasn't happy about it.

"So, I'm going to have to ask you and Russel to remind him. You know, about the Russians and all," Julian yawned on the other end of the line.

"Consider it done, boss."

"That's a good chap. See you at the @Lightning game later tonight?"


Eric hung up the phone, then turned to Russel.

"Andy's been working with the Russians."

Russel just nodded and held out his right hand. Eric handed him the Glock .30, and Russel headed back towards the warehouse.

Eric got back into the X5 and turned up the stereo, hoping to drown out the sounds of gunfire. The in-dash MP3 player was set on shuffle, and had just started playing @DavidBowie's "Sons of The Silent Age" as Russel kicked the door to the warehouse back in. The song wasn't even half-over when he came out, a thin spatter of blood across his white forehead. He was grinning, which Eric had seen a few times before but still found disturbing.

Russel handed the Glock back to Eric. The gun wasn't even warm, and Eric popped the clip out -- still full. Russel hadn't fired a shot. Wiping his forehead with a handkerchief from his pocket, Russel sat back in his chair and waited for Eric to start driving.

The next day, Eric was just coming back to his Epicurian Bayshore Boulevard apartment from a particularly punishing workout when he caught the midday news. The anchor was launching into a story about three horribly mutilated corpses that Tampa Police had found inside of a warehouse just off of Highway 60 late the night before. According to the police, all three men had been brutally butchered with a long, thin knife. Currently, the police had no leads as to who might have killed them, but of course Eric knew. He was just glad he didn't have to watch it happen -- he'd seen that show before, and it still gave him trouble sleeping from time to time.

Chapter Four

Eric had planned to sleep in on Sunday, but whoever was on the other end of his loudly ringing cell phone had other ideas. Stifling the urge to throw the phone into the cheap drywall across the room, Eric picked up the phone and mumbled "What?" into the receiver.

"Mr. Hawkins. It's Deputy Moore."

"It's," Eric pulled the phone away from his ear and checked the time "6:30 in the morning, Deputy."

"I'm aware of the time. I was wondering if you've had breakfast yet."

"That would be a no."

"What a coincidence. Neither have I. I'm outside your apartment right now. Shall we say five minutes?"

More than anything else, Eric wanted to tell the cop to fuck off so he could go back to sleep. Still, he supposed he'd better do what he could to keep himself on the good side of local law enforcement, so he just sighed and said "sure."

Eric quickly threw on a pair of jeans and a black long-sleeved button-up. He actively tried to not think of the Camel Lights in the kitchen drawer as he laced up his boots and grabbed his keys from the table by the door. Just as he'd said, Nathaniel was outside, leaning on the side of an unmarked Chevy Impala. He was out of uniform, dressed in a pair of jeans and a white shirt.

"Good morning, Mr. Hawkins."


"If that's the case, I'm Nathaniel. Sorry to wake you up so early on a Sunday, but if you don't get to breakfast before the churchies, you're probably not going to get it."

"Fair enough."

Nathaniel motioned toward the Impala.

"No cuffs this time?"

"Not necessary. Your alibi for that last body checked out, as well as for the previous two. You're off of that particular hook."

Eric shrugged and got into the passenger seat of the Impala, which was, indeed, an unmarked police car. Eric had never been in the front seat of one, but he'd been in the backseat of several. The radio was crackling away, but as Nathaniel started the car, he turned it down to a soft murmur.

"Where are we going?"

"Place called Joe's, up in Benson. Ever been? It's not but five minutes from here."

Eric shook his head.

"Well. Just hope you're not a vegetarian."

The low, brick building they pulled up outside of a few minutes later was, indeed, called Joe's Diner. Eric had been half-expecting a flashing neon "Eat-At-Joe's" sign out front, but he was disappointed on that count. The two of them walked inside -- apart from two old-timers smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee at the counter, the place was devoid of customers. Without waiting for someone to seat them, Nathaniel took a booth near the back of the restaurant, sat down, and turned one of the coffee cups in front of him right-side-up. Eric followed suit, and, as if by magic, an elderly waitress appeared and filled both mugs with coffee.

"You boys need a menu?"

"Thanks, hon," Nathaniel winked at her.

As the waitress toddled off towards the kitchen, Eric took a sip of his coffee.

"So what's the reason for the social call, Nathaniel?"

"To be honest with you, Eric, I need to pick your brain."

Eric knew where this was going, and he already didn't like it.

"You need some help configuring an SQL database? Some C++ programming assistance, maybe? Because I'm a computer programmer, Deputy. Nothing else."

"You know that's not what I mean."

"I thought the whole point of this was a chance to start over in exchange for my testimony? Check with the FBI. Hell, check the Tampa papers from late last year. I gave my testimony, and I got a new life in trade. Granted, it's not the best one, but I'm trying my goddamndest to make it work."

"And I understand that, I really do. But that little piece of information you gave me the other day? About the prison tattoo? It checked out, and it checked out in a big way. Before you wandered into my office --"

"You mean before Captain Napoleon dragged me into your office."

"Well, yes. Before we met, I should say, we had no idea the Russian Mafia was even operating in the Midwest, much less right here in town. I've got no one who has any sort of meaningful experience with these guys -- closest thing I have to an expert is a part-time Russian professor at UNO. You know what he does for full-time work? He runs a coffee shop."

"And I check security software for bad code."

The ancient waitress creaked by again, and both men ordered. She nodded, slowly scratching their orders into her pad with a chewed-up golf pencil. After she had left, Nathaniel pulled a pack of Marlboro Reds out of his shirt pocket and lit one. He tilted the pack towards Eric.

"I quit."

"Good for you. I never was able to. Look, Eric. I know what you're trying to do here, and I respect that. But look at it from my perspective. I'm in a situation where I've got a major organized crime faction operating in my quiet little town -- not only that, but I've got someone else killing them off. This isn't a violent place, kid. This isn't the type of city where a mob war happens. And I have absolutely no idea about any of this stuff."

Eric sighed and finished off the rest of his coffee. The waitress appeared out of nowhere again and refilled it without him having to ask. He took another sip.

"You know this isn't a new thing, right? The Russians being in your town? They've been here for years."

Nathaniel shook his head.

"We would have noticed. The information I have on the Russian Mafia says they're excessively violent. Not subtle guys."

"Where'd you get that information?"

"Internet," Nathaniel admitted.

"It's old info. Sure, maybe in 1992, the Russians were using Kalashnikovs to splash their enemies all over the streets, but they've evolved. Gotten smarter. If a criminal organization is going to be any good, they're going to make sure you never see them, never hear about them. They become ghosts."

"So they don't kill their enemies anymore?"

"Sure they do. They just do it quietly. Either you haven't found the bodies yet, or they've managed to roll them into your nice, quiet city's murder rate -- which isn't so quiet, by the way. I looked it up. You're well above the national average here for murders, Nathaniel. Seems to me this is a perfect place for them to operate -- law enforcement assumes they'd never move this far into the country, and there's a high enough murder rate for them to drop the occasional body without anyone noticing."

"See? This is exactly the kind of information I need."

Shit. Eric thought. I didn't think I'd let him talk me into helping out this easy.

"All right. Fine. I'll give you whatever help I can, mainly because my life as it is now is so fucking boring it makes me want to scream. A few conditions, though," Eric said.

"I expected that."

"First, my name never shows up in any paperwork. No memos, no files, not so much as a fucking post-it floating around the office. Same for my phone number, email address, bad sketches of me -- anything."

"Fair enough."

"Second -- I work with you on off hours only. You need something while I'm at work or have something planned, you're shit out of luck. Third, you get that overzealous Deputy of yours to give me a little space. I know it's fair play to keep an eye on me, but I'm considering asking that jackass to move in just to make my life easier."

"I'll do what I can to accommodate your schedule, of course. And Johnny will back off. He doesn't, he answers to me."

"OK. Tell me what you think you know, and I'll tell you where and how you're wrong," Eric grinned as the elderly waitress plunked plates down in front of the two men.

* * *

After dropping Eric back at his apartment, Nathaniel headed for home. His head was still spinning with all of the information the younger man had laid on him at breakfast -- he'd expected Eric to know a few things, sure, but it seemed that he knew everything about the Russian Mafia, from history to current operations in several major areas of the United States. He knew their organizational structure, what kinds of business they usually dealt in, and even where they most likely got their weapons from.

Nathaniel decided to do a bit more checking on Eric's background. He called Johnny, who was in the office, as usual, though it was the younger cop's day off, too.

"Deputy Teal," he answered on the second ring.

"Johnny, don't you have hobbies? Interests outside of work?"

"I'm aware what hobbies are, boss. Some paperwork I wanted to catch up on."

"Likely excuse. Hey, I need to ask you a few questions about the Marshal's Service briefing you got on Eric Hawkins."

"Sure thing. Let me find my notes," Johnny replied. Nathaniel could hear paperwork shuffling for a few seconds on the other end of the line. "OK, shoot."

"First off, he has a rap sheet, correct?"

"Not one they gave me. There was the matter of the three dead bodies at the Port Of Tampa, but those were pardoned as part of his Witness Security deal. Never went on his sheet."

"What did they tell you about his background?"

"Not a lot. My notes are, like, three lines, here, boss. Eric Hawkins, was involved in an organized criminal enterprise headed by someone named Julian Clayton III. Worked directly under this guy, who I get the impression was a huge fish down there, for just shy of eight years."

"Anything else?"

"The guy who briefed me -- uh, Dean. Marshal Ryan Dean. He let me know that the guy had a real history of violence. He's in mandatory counseling for it, actually. Part of his deal. Other than that, I got nothing, really. DOB, Scars and Identifying Marks, real name. That's it."

"Real name was?"

"Eric Peter Austen, DOB 4/11/75, Carson City, Nevada."

"All right. Thanks, Johnny. I'll do some checking around and see what I can find out."

No problem, boss."

As Nathaniel hung up the phone, he could see the driveway to his Benson house -- it was within shouting distance of Joe's Diner, actually. He parked the car, got out, and locked it.

The house was a lot more empty this weekend, as his ex-wife Sheila had come by during his shift on Friday and cleaned out the rest of her stuff. She'd been trying to coordinate a time with him for months -- he'd finally just told her to use her keys whenever it was good for her, hoping that he wouldn't be home when she showed up. Thankfully, all of the extra hours he'd been putting in on the three Russian corpses had kept him out of the house more than usual.

His computer was still there, though she'd taken the vintage roll-top desk it used to sit on. He moved the @toshiba laptop to the kitchen table, plugged it in, and went to get himself another cup of coffee while it started up. By the time he'd added sugar and cream to a warmed-over mug of yesterday's brew, the login screen for the NCIC was waiting for him to type in a username and password.

Nathaniel entered the requested information, then sipped his coffee as he waited for a server somewhere in a basement in Washington D.C. to agree that he was, indeed, Deputy Nathaniel Moore of the Douglas County Sheriff's Department. He entered the name and date of birth Johnny had given him, and Eric Austen's entire criminal history popped up a few seconds later.

Most of said history, it appeared, had been provided by Austen himself during several FBI interviews. He had one arrest, when he was 22, for public intoxication in Clearwater, Florida, but the story his statements told were, to say the least, frightening.

After losing his job (Chief Technology Officer of a dot-com startup that had been embezzling investor funds, which Eric himself had no knowledge of until the company folded), Eric had an almost year-long stint of unemployment. He got into a barfight that brought him to the attention of Julian Clayton III, who seemed to run more than 90% of the illegal activities in the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater area, not to mention almost 30% of the same in Miami.

Eric seemed to be mostly an enforcer for Julian's organization -- he made collections, hit people who needed to be hit, and shot people who needed to be shot. Julian's people dealt in drugs, prostitution, weapons, organized theft, large-scale auto theft, and murder for hire, among other lesser crimes. Then, in late 2008 (though the file didn't say why), Eric had turned on his boss and entered Witness Security. Apparently, Julian was such a large prize for the FBI that they had absolutely no problem overlooking three young men that Eric admitted to killing.

The file had information, but it didn't answer as many questions as Nathaniel had hoped it would. He made a note to check into Julian's NCIC file when he got the chance, but more pressing matters demanded his attention -- like replacing the bed and living room furniture that Sheila had finally removed from his house.

As Nathaniel shut down his computer, he had no way of knowing that a ghosted email server in Hong Kong was already sending out a message. He certainly didn't know that the message bounced from server to server all across the world before it popped up on a computer screen in Clearwater, Florida before he'd even started taking inventory of what he'd need to buy. And, of course, there was no way he could have known that the person sitting in front of that screen, a hacker with the 'Net handle @shroudripper, immediately picked up his cell phone and made a call.

Chapter Five

Eric didn't hear from Nathaniel for a couple of days, so he assumed that he'd gotten all of the information he needed at breakfast that Sunday morning. So much the better, Eric admitted to himself. Now I have time for all the. . .

As hard as he tried, Eric couldn't figure out how to finish that sentence. He'd replaced the radiator in the Thunderbird on Sunday, and that was the one thing apart from work he had on his calendar in the near future, or, to tell the truth, at all.

It was a Tuesday, and just after six in the evening. Work had been just as boring as ever that day, and Eric had just come back from a five-mile run from his place just east of Dundee up to Benson and back. He noticed as he ran that this part of town had kind of an odd makeup -- low-income, almost ghetto areas gave way to modest buffer zones, then really nice houses, then another buffer zone, then back to the ghetto. He saw all of this within two miles.

Of course, he'd noticed that this was a phenomenon localized to the older parts of town. In his first few weeks in Omaha, when he'd been feeling particularly adventurous, he'd driven way out to the West part of town, which took easily 45 minutes (anyone who had the idea that this was a "small town" would be immediately disabused of that notion after such a drive). Out west, the houses were all huge and ludicrous McMansions, the type that popped up in less than a month and sold for an easy $425,000. Even when he'd been pulling in more money than he'd ever dreamed of, Eric couldn't understand why anyone would actually want to live in one of those places -- they were god-awful gaudy, and couldn't have been constructed too well.

Of course, this was all conjecture, as Eric had never actually owned a home. Out of college, he'd rented a very nice apartment in Hyde Park, as he'd scored an executive-level job with an Internet startup. After the startup imploded due to massive corruption, he'd rented a place by the month in a horrid area of Tampa for a while before working for Julian. During the eight years he worked in Julian's organization, he'd lived in three progressively nicer apartments, all in buildings owned by Julian's "legitimate" real-estate empire.

"Bought that building with the proceeds from a stolen Ukrainian fishing ship loaded to the gills with old Soviet surface-to-air-missles," Julian had told him of one place he'd lived, a tasteful two-level loft in a downtown Tampa skyscraper.

Eric popped his iPod onto the docking station in the living room and clicked it over to The Dead Kennedys' Frankenchrist album. As near as he waS aware, he had no neighbors on either side of him, so he could have played it as loud as he liked, but he kept the volume reasonably low as he started to rummage through the cabinets in the kitchen in search of dinner.

"Soup is Good Food" wasn't even halfway over when his cell phone started vibrating on the kitchen counter. The caller ID screen let him know it was Nathaniel's office number.

"Evening, Nathaniel," Eric answered.

"Hey, Eric. Bet you thought I forgot about you."

"Nah. What's up?"

"You busy later on this evening? Say, about 9:00 or so?"

Eric looked around his empty, quiet apartment.

"I think I can shuffle some things around."

"Great. I'll drop by, if that's all right."

"Yeah, that should be fine. It gives me a chance to clean up, anyway."

"See you in a bit."

As Eric hung up the phone, he looked around the living room to see what needed cleaning. The threadbare couch, the secondhand coffee table with his laptop, and a small end table with the iPod dock were the sum total of the contents of the room.

He'd planned a weight workout, and he'd have plenty of time to do that, of course. Afterwards, he resolved to fire up the Internet and finally check @TargetINC for some halfway decent furniture and just maybe, if he was feeling crazy, something to hang on the walls.

* * *

Nathaniel was nothing if not punctual. Just as the clock on his cell phone switched over to 9:00, Eric heard a knock on the apartment door. Eric had already showered and changed into a pair of jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt, and opened the door to find Nathaniel wearing pretty much the same thing.

"Evening, Eric. Feel like a little field trip?"

Eric shrugged and followed Nathaniel outside, locking his apartment after him as he went. Johnny dressed in a pair of khakis and an untucked polo shirt, was standing outside of Nathaniel's Impala.

"So, where is the class headed this evening?" Eric asked.

"South Omaha. A CI we have down there has noticed a bunch more Eastern European faces in the neighborhood lately," Johnny told him.

"Yeah, and you'll blend right in, Chief. Nice undercover look you've got going there."

Eric could see that Johnny wanted to say something, but Nathaniel cut him off with a look. Instead, Johnny just opened the driver's door of the Impala.

"Wait. That's the car we're taking?" Eric shook his head.

"Yeah. Why?" Johnny sighed.

"You two just might as well wear signs around your necks saying 'I'm a fucking cop.' That car is going to stick out like a sore thumb down on 33rd and L. You need something that looks worn, beat-up, ghetto."

"Like that piece of shit you drive?" Johnny smiled.

"Sadly, yes. Touche," Eric admitted, tossing his keys to the short, overmuscled cop. "Care to drive?"

Johnny caught the keys and opened the driver door. Nathaniel opened the passenger door, then looked over at Eric and nodded to the backseat.

"I have to sit in the backseat of my own car? That's just wrong, man," Eric bitched, but he pushed the passenger seat forward and crawled into the tiny backseat anyway. Nathaniel and Johnny got in, and Nathaniel moved his seat forward a bit.

"Got enough room back there?" Johnny snickered.

"Shut the fuck up," Eric grumbled.

Johnny smiled and started the engine. A low, deep growl vibrated through the entire vehicle as the Thunderbird roared to life.

"Whoa. This the 3.8-liter V6?" Johnny asked.

"No, that was the SC. This is the LX. 4.6-liter V8."

"Hell of an engine."

"I bought this thing for a reason."

Johnny nodded appreciatively and backed the T-bird out of the lot, then piloted onto the streets. It was still warm and muggy out, but the weather people hadn't predicted any rain, so it was likely to stay that way.

"Air conditioner work in this boat?" Nathaniel asked.

"It should. I just fixed it a couple of weeks ago."

Nathaniel turned the knob all the way into the blue, and frigid air started pouring out of the T-bird's dash. Nathaniel pulled his radio from his pocket and set it in the center console between himself and Johnny, then turned the volume up a bit.

"So, boss tells me you know a lot about these Russians," Johnny started.

"More than either of you two," Eric nodded.

Johnny let the remark slide.

"What do you think are the chances they're set up in South O? That's Mexican territory."

"La eMe?"

"What the fuck is that?"

"Never mind," Johnny shook his head. "Wherever these guys are holed up, they're probably not going to be walking around, making a big spectacle of themselves. I doubt they're running their operations from South O, because some pale motherfuckers like that in a Chicano neighborhood are bound to draw attention, which is exactly what they don't want."

"So no, then?"

"Well, not exactly. They might have some presence, some business they need to handle down there. It's worth taking a look at."

The drive from Eric's place didn't take more than fifteen minutes, even at the five miles under the speed limit Johnny kept the car pinned to. He parked the T-bird along the street across from a thrift store that Eric was pretty sure he'd bought his couch from.

"So, what's the plan? Split up? Look for clues?" Eric joked.

"We wait and watch," Nathaniel said. "Mind if I smoke in your car?"

Yes I fucking mind, because the entire car will smell like smoke for days, and I'm still trying to quit.

"Knock yourself out."

* * *

They'd been there for four hours, and had seen nothing more interesting than a young Mexican mother wrangling her three children at midnight, which Eric found all sorts of creepy.

"Call it a night, boss?" Johnny yawned.

"Yeah, we've got an early day at the station. Might as well pack it in." Nathaniel shrugged.

"You could do that. Or you could follow that black Mercedes that just pulled out two blocks down, because those are your guys. You know, whichever you feel like," Eric shrugged.

"You're fucking with us," Johnny accused flatly.

"Only one way to find out, isn't there, Sparky?" Eric grinned, slapping the Deputy on the shoulder. His hand hit solid, granite muscle.

Johnny fired up the Thunderbird's engine and set off after the black Mercedes sedan, keeping at least a block between the two cars. As crappy as the two of them seemed to be at investigative police work, Eric had to admit that Johnny was damned good at following someone without being seen -- never once did the black Benz off in the distance give any indication that they were aware anyone was following them.

Their drive took them up to 42nd Street, past the University of Nebraska Medical Center, and just a spit away from Johnny's own neighborhood. They continued North, however, past Benson, all the way up to 31st and Grand Avenue -- a part of town that the locals referred to with trepidation and loathing as "North O." If one was to hear of a shooting overnight and Omaha, the intersection of thirty-something and Grand had a very decent chance of being mentioned, and the black Mercedes parked just off 31st street, right in the thick of it all.

Both of the Benz's front doors opened, and two young men got out. They were as white as could be, and both had short, dark hair. One wore cargo pants and a wife-beater tanktop, the other jeans and a tight-fitting T-shirt. Both of them had tattoos all over, and, from where Johnny parked the car, they could see the artwork pretty clearly. As the one in the wife-beater knocked on the door to a run-down ranch-style house, the three men in the Thunderbird saw a cross tattooed on the inside of his arm.

"Told you those were your guys," Eric sneered.

Johnny said nothing, but Eric could see his jaw clench just slightly.

A young black man with cornrows, baggy black jeans, and a T-shirt two sizes too large for his lanky frame opened the door to the ranch house. There was a short conversation between the two young Russians and the young black man, and the Russian in the wife-beater reached into his cargo pocket and pulled out a large plastic bag full of small vials.

"Heroin?" Johnny guessed.

"I'd bet," Nathaniel nodded.

The young black man looked inside the bag, smiled a huge grin, and handed over a brown paper bag. Wife-beater looked inside, nodded, and pounded fists with the young black guy.

"And that, guys, was a re-up. Congratulations. The Russian Mafia is running drugs into your town, at least."

"I wish we had some bugs on that house. I'd love to hear what they're saying," Johnny shook his head as the two Russians headed back to their car.

"Should just go up and ask the black kid," Eric shrugged.

"Yeah, that'd work. I should just walk right up and have a chat with him, shouldn't I, boss?" Johnny chuckled.

"Nah, both of you are still wearing those 'I'm a fucking cop' signs around your neck. Kid would make you in a second," Eric shook his head.

"Yeah. Hate to break it to you, pal, but you're pretty clean-cut yourself. You look like one of us," Johnny shot back.

Eric took off his long-sleeved T-shirt, leaving only the grey wife-beater he had on underneath. Johnny and Nathaniel saw, for the first time, the plethora of tattoos covering Eric's arms from his shoulders to just before the backs of his hands.

"Wrong, Chief. I look like one of them."

It took Nathaniel a moment to speak-- apparently, Eric guessed, both cops had skipped over the "Scars and Identifying Marks" entry on his file. When the senior Deputy finally did find his voice, the words he delivered came with a shake of the head, free of charge.

"No way, Eric. You're not a cop. I can't have you questioning a suspect."

"I'm not pretending to be a cop. I'm just one guy talking to another guy, albeit in slightly odd circumstances."

"We just observed that suspect in an illegal activity. I say we call in some backup and bust that whole place," Johnny said, reaching for the radio.

"I wouldn't. You do that, the Russians know you're on to them, and they go even deeper underground. The only reason they got sloppy enough to be seen tonight is that they've been in town for years with no hint that law enforcement knows anything about them."

Nathaniel considered. Eric was probably right -- he'd checked with the liason officer at the Omaha Police Department about Russian Mafia activity in town, and all he'd gotten was a disbelieving laugh.

"Look, kids. My gut tells me you haven't told your bosses you're even out here tonight. Would make you look pretty silly if it turned out that Witness Protection Boy was full of shit, and you chased down whatever Russian Mob fairy tales he threw you. I get that. So, as long as we're off the books here, why not see just how much we can take back to your superiors?"

Johnny looked at Nathaniel.

"I hate to admit it, boss, but the guy has a point."

Nathaniel lit a cigarette. He took a long, thoughtful drag, then blew out smoke as he spoke.

"Yeah. Yeah, he does. All right, Johnny. Drive us about a block away and we'll drop you off. You can approach on foot. Any idea what you're going to say?"

"I'm good at this sort of thing," Eric said.

* * *

Speaking English was easy enough -- Eric had, after all, been raised with the language. Speaking Russian wasn't that hard, either -- he'd taken three years of it in college, and had plenty of practice using it when he worked for Julian. But speaking English with a Russian accent and making it convincing? That was a whole different animal, Eric realized as he strolled slowly up the block towards the stash house.

If he played it Walter Koenig-style and really belted it out for the back row, the kid would surely see through him -- Eric assumed that the young black kid had been dealing with Russians for some time now, and would be used to the accent. If he came at it too soft, though, the kid wouldn't buy him as anything but an American playing Russian, which would be just as bad. As he got within 50 feet of the stash house, Eric tried to put himself in the past, talking to Alexy again.

Eric knocked on the door, and the same kid from earlier answered. Behind him, Eric could see two other kids about his age, playing Left 4 Dead on @Microsoft_Xbox. The stereo was bumping out @young_jeezy, though not at a volume that would wake the neighbors and get the police called.

"What up, man. They was already here," the black kid answered wearily.

"Who was here?" Eric smiled, trying to sound as much like Alexy as possible.

"Your boys. Nicolai and, uh, the other one. Nigga that wear all the skin-tight shirts."

"Damn. I was supposed to meet them. They say where they go next?"

"Prolly back to the bar, man."

"Yes, but which bar? We have more than one, yes?"

"Yeah, right. Not the one uptown. The other one, just off Jackson outside the Market?"

"Yes. That one. I go meet them there. Look, help a brother out?"

The young black kid chuckled at Eric's attempt at Russian-accented slang.

"Yeah, man. What you need?"

"Do not tell Nicolai I was late, yes? Already, I am on thin ice with him."

"No problem, man. In fact, I can do you one better. Hold up."

The kid vanished inside for a second, but left the door open. One of the guys playing Xbox looked over at Eric and nodded.

"What up," he said softly.

"What is up," Eric waved back.

"That some sick ink, G."

"You like?," Eric held up his forearms. "I have some done in Moscow, some done in Miami."

"Nowhere around here, though?"

"Have not found good place yet. You know one?"

"Big Brain, G. Only place worth a fuck in this town."

"I have seen it, I think?"

"You should. It's like a block down from that bar you guys own."

"Yes, I have seen. Never open this late. In Moscow, tattoo shops open late nights."

"Yeah, they close at like 10."

The young kid appeared at the doorway again, handing Eric an unmarked, dark green backpack.

"I forgot to give this to your boys when they was by earlier. You can say you got here before they did and picked it up for them."

"Thanks, brother."

"Anytime, man. Peace," the young kid said, holding his fist out. Eric tapped it with his own, then started to walk away. He heard the door close behind him, but waited until he was well out of sight to open the bag.

Inside were several @BlackBerry devices -- cloned, Eric guessed -- and a .40 Sig Sauer handgun. He zipped up the bag and walked back to his car, where Nathaniel was standing outside, waiting and smoking a cigarette.

"The kid talk to you?" he asked as Eric got into the car.

"Yep. Gave me a location on one of their operational areas downtown."

"Good work, Eric!"

"Oh, yeah. And you might want to find something to do with this," Eric said, dropping the backpack into Nathaniel's lap as Johnny drove them out of the neighborhood.

* * *

As Eric finally walked back into his apartment around three, he kicked his shoes off and stretched. Work was going to come very early tomorrow -- or today, really, he supposed. He considered just staying up for a few more hours and going in on zero sleep as he took his keys and phone out of his pocket.

As Eric looked at his phone, he saw that he had a new voicemail. He hadn't notice a missed call, but service did tend to get spotty in a few areas of town. Wondering who would have called him this late at night, Eric dialed his voicemail and listened.

The voice on the other end was garbled and staticky, but Eric recognized it right away.

"Eric, darling! You never call, you never write. I'm beginning to think you don't love your old pal Julian anymore."

Eric had never had a heart attack, but he imagined that the tightness in his chest wasn't far off from how one would feel. He hung up immediately.

Well, at least I won't have a problem staying awake, now.

Chapter Six

Tampa, Florida, 2006

"How is it that you haven't seen 'Evil Dead?' It's not like you haven't had the time since it came out," Eric Austen shook his head.

"When it came out, I was only five and live in Vladivostok. Was still Soviet Union then, so we don't get American films," Alexy replied, rolling down the Land Rover's window a crack and lighting a cigarette.

"Yeah, but you've been in this country, what, six or seven years now?"


"And in all that time, no one's said, 'Hey, Alexy, have you ever seen 'Evil Dead?'"

"They have not."

"Well, that's something we're going to have to fix. We get done with this thing, I'm having you over to my place. Beer, nachos, Evil Dead. You in?"

"In what?"

"Are you coming?"

"Sure. If movie is as good as you say it is."

"Oh, it's pretty much the best movie ever."

Eric and Alexy were driving down I-75 from Tampa to Miami. Julian had asked the two of them to go to a meeting with some Triad types -- Chinese mafia guys that Julian wanted to work with against the Russians. Despite being Russian by birth, Alexy seemed to have no problem with this -- his dislike of the Russian Mafia was what made Julian want to hire him, in fact.

Apparently, when he was a younger man and still living in Russia, Alexy had run afoul of the mob, and had lost his two sisters in the process. Now that he was in the States, he jumped at every chance Julian gave him to lash out against his former countrymen. His knowledge of their organization had come in useful more than once, and Eric had made it a point to learn as much as he could from Alexy Odoshevny.

"What do we know about the Chinamen?" Alexy asked, offering the pack of cigarettes across to Eric, who took one hand off the Land Rover's steering wheel and took one of the Dukats out of the box.

"Well, first, we know not to call them Chinamen. They really don't dig that," Eric laughed, lighting his smoke.

"Political correctness. Is bane of my existence, Eric."

"Second, we know that they're Triads, so they're well-organized and can be violent when they want to. I have the feeling that the less we say around them, the better off we'll be. It's like meeting your girlfriend's parents for the first time -- yes sir, no sir, please and thank you, all that shit."

"This, I can do."

"Good. We're just there to open lines of communication, so I don't anticipate any problems. We're supposed to invite them up to Julian's house in Tampa next week for some kind of get-together, and just sort of feel them out on a possible merger of certain operations."

"And I am here because?"

"Because Julian asked me to go, and I get bored on long car rides, so I asked him to send you along."

"You did not feel like talking to Russel the whole way?"

"I think you've noticed by now that Russel is rather limited, conversationally."

"That is one way to say it. Another is to say he is creepy," Alexy nodded.

The meet in Miami was at a South Beach restaurant, one that Eric was pretty sure he'd eaten at a few years before. He'd had no idea then that it was a Chinese Mafia front -- he just remembered it as being somewhat swank and expensive.

"Eric Austen and Alexy Odoshevny," Eric winked at the hostess, a cute blonde 22 year-old.

"Yes. Mr. Tong is waiting for you in the VIP room. This way, please, gentlemen," the hostess replied, stone-faced.

"Your game, I think it needs work," Alexy muttered as they followed the hostess.

"Apparently," Eric shook his head.

"Eric! Alexy! Welcome to Miami, guys!" Jian Wa Tong bellowed from his table. Jian Wa was young, perhaps 22, but already working on a middle-aged quality gut. He was dressed in a smooth black suit and black shirt and smoking a cigar.

"Hey, Jian Wa. Good to meet you in person, my man," Eric said, sticking out his hand. The young Chinese took it and shook vigorously.

Alexy offered his hand as well, and Jian Wa shook it with the same enthusiasm. He motioned to the table, a lacquered cherry-wood four-top, and as Eric sat, he saw for the first time the huge Chinese bodyguard just behind Jian Wa, almost completely hidden in the shadows of the room.

"Your man joining us?"

"Only if there's trouble," Jian Wa smiled widely.

Jian Wa opened a box of cigars, offering them to Alexy and Eric, who each took one and lit up.

"Something to eat, gentlemen? A cocktail, perhaps?"

"I'd love a gin and tonic," Eric said.

"The same," Alexy nodded.

"No vodka?" Jian Wa grinned widely.

"Never had the taste for it," Alexy grinned right back.

A waiter appeared from behind the huge guard, three gin and tonics on his tray. He set them down on the table. Eric took a sip from his -- it was a bit watered down, but acceptable.

"So, brass tacks, gentlemen. You didn't drive four hours on a Saturday evening for no reason. What can I do for you?"

"Brass tacks. I like it. To be blunt -- you have problems with the Russians. We have problems with the Russians. We've mostly driven them out of Tampa, but they're still fucking with our operations in Miami -- operations, I might add, that don't cross with your operations."

"Yeah, the Russians are assholes, no doubt. No offense," Jian Wa tipped his glass at Alexy.

"No, I tend to agree, sir," Alexy smirked.

"But what's to say that once we get rid of them, we don't have something worse to deal with? Your people, for example?"

"Valid concern. We don't intend to cross you, and if you don't intend to cross us, there's no problem there."

"You know what my father taught me? Never trust a criminal. Of course, he didn't think that one day I'd be a criminal, so I don't know how valid that advice was. Alexy, let me ask you something. Do you trust this man?"

"I do."

"You seem like a trustworthy man, indeed. So here's what I'm prepared to do. I'm prepared to make this agreement, Eric, with you. If it goes well, you and I are the best of friends. If it goes badly, you're the one I blame. Deal?"

Eric couldn't help it, but looking into Jian Wa Tong's smiling eyes, he realized that nothing would make him happier than hunting Eric down and slicing him up.

"Deal," Eric said anyway, forcing a smile.

* * *

It was almost three in the morning by the time Eric had made it back to Tampa and dropped Alexy off at his Bayshore Gardens apartment building. Still, Julian had told him to come to the house and report as soon as he got back, and Julian never seemed to sleep, so he drove about a half a mile south down Bayshore until he got to Julian's neighborhood.

When he had first moved to Tampa, he'd joked that a lot of the houses in the Bayshore Beautiful neighborhood looked like "Colombian Drug Lord Houses." It made a certain kind of sense to Eric that Julian would buy a house here -- it was very much like him. Opulent, expensive, and a bit on the obnoxious side, but charming nonetheless.

Eric had stopped ringing the doorbell at Julian's place years ago. Julian rarely kept the front door locked if he was expecting Eric to drop by, as we was tonight, so Eric simply walked in and turned on the lights in the entryway. The place seemed empty.

"Julian? You home?" Eric called out.

"Eric, darling! In the kitchen. Hope you haven't just eaten!"

Eric assumed that Julian had been up late cooking again, which wasn't uncommon -- several times, Julian had told him that he would have been a chef if there was any money in it. As he walked into the kitchen, though, he saw that Julian had not, in fact, been making a tasty meal. Rather, he and Russel were making a bloody mess of the tile kitchen.

Eric had met the man strapped to the heavy oak chair once or twice before. His name was Jason, and he worked for Julian as a runner -- a low-level drug dealer. From the state he was in now, though, Eric was honestly surprised he recognized the man -- his face and torso were covered in blood, and large swatches of skin had been flayed away from his body. If Jason wasn't already dead, from the amount of blood covering the kitchen, he would be soon.

"Eric, you remember Jason. Jason seemed to think he could deal with the Russians behind my back, feed them information on us. Now poor Jason's had an appointment with Russel's Hissatsu," Julian shook his head sadly.

Russel held up the aforementioned knife, a long, thin, sick-looking modernization of a Japanese Tanto. It was slick with blood, and Russel was grinning that freaky grin again.

"Well," Eric shrugged, "Sometimes you have a human resources issue to deal with."

"See, Russel? This is why we like him. He gets us," Julian beamed.

Russel nodded, wiping the knife with what Eric assumed had been Jason's shirt.

"How'd the meeting with the Chinese go, my boy?"

"Looks like we can do business together. Tong will be up to meet and greet next week. I'm personally on the hook for this one, though, boss, so can we try and be nice to this guy?" Eric chuckled.

"But Eric, my boy. . . I'm always nice to everybody," Julian smiled, then looked over at Jason. "Well, except him, of course."

Eric finished his report on the meeting, making sure to mention the muscle Jian Wa had on deck even for a social call. Julian listened, nodding, and thanked him for the information. As Eric left, he tried not to step in any of Jason's blood on the way out.

It was no mean feat -- there certainly was a lot of it.

Chapter Seven

Before he even realized who was on the other end of his office phone line that Wednesday morning, Federal Marshal Ryan Dean could tell that this person was angry. Almost too angry to form coherent sentences, actually.

"Look, sir, calm down. I do have to advise you that this call is being recorded, as per Federal guidelines."

The line went dead, and a second later, Dean's cell phone rang. He saw from the caller ID that it was Eric Hawkins' cell number.

"Yes, Eric?"

"This line tapped too?"

"No, this is my private number."

"Good. Now why the fuck am I getting calls from Julian Clayton?"

For the first time he could remember since high school, Ryan Dean was at a loss for words. After several seconds of silence, he finally managed to choke out, "Say again?"

"That's right, motherfucker. Julian Fucking Clayton has my fucking phone number. You want to tell me how the fuck that can happen?"

Eric was, indeed, angry. But Dean couldn't say he blamed him.

"Eric, I. . . I have no idea. Where are you now?"

"Home. I called in sick to work."

"Stay right there. I'll be over in twenty minutes."

Eric didn't say another word -- he just hung up the phone.

* * *

Eric had calmed himself down slightly by the time Dean knocked on his apartment door -- he still wanted to knock the huge Federal agent in the skull with something heavy, but now there was very little chance he would actually do so. Fifteen minutes before, he wouldn't have been able to say the same.

"I need you to tell me exactly what happened," Dean said, taking a seat on the couch.

"I got this voicemail at about three in the morning," Eric said, putting his phone on speaker and dialing into his voicemail. He played the message back for Dean, who listened intently with his fingers steepled.

"You're sure that was Julian Clayton?"

"Yes, I'm fucking sure."

"Do you have a number he called from? I need to run a trace."

"I'm not an idiot, Dean. I ran it down already. Coleman Federal Prison."

"See? He's in prison."

"I know he's in fucking prison. I put him there. What concerns me is how he found out where I was in the first fucking place, not to mention all of the people in his organization you didn't lock up," Eric growled.

"They're low-level street dealers and thugs for the most part, Eric. They're not much to worry about."

"Russel Brandt."

"Russel Brandt is dead, Eric. We found his body, remember?"

"You found a body. I never saw it. I never got to see the autopsy. I'm in no way convinced Russel is actually dead."

"The FBI identified the body, Eric. It was Brandt."

"And how, exactly, did they do that? Russel Brandt lived completely off the grid, which means no social security number, no driver's license, no criminal record, no employment history. I'm pretty sure he even destroyed the original copy of his birth certificate. So how, with no prints and no ID in the system, could they have identified his body?"

"I think they did it by dental records."

Eric ran his hands through his military-short hair and plunked down on the couch.

"He didn't have dental records."

"Everybody has dental records."

"Not Russel. If your body had dental records at all, they were forged."

"Look, Eric, I'll look into it. Just calm down, OK? You're perfectly safe here, and I've alerted the Deputy assigned to you to keep an eye out."

"Fantastic," Eric said flatly.

"I'll also put a Marshal on stakeout outside your house, if you like."

"Save the manpower. If Russel is alive and coming for me, you'd never see him anyway."

"We're not completely incompetent, Eric. We're actually very good at what we do."

"Unfortunately, so is Russel."

"Cheer up. There's not a lot Julian can do to you from prison. I mean, he's only allowed one phone call a week, and he used that to call you. He's just trying to rile you up, make you paranoid. It looks like he's succeeded."

Eric shrugged and walked over to the kitchen drawer. He pulled one of the Camel Lights out of the pack and lit it.

"I thought you quit," Dean said, lighting one of his own.

"I did. Extenuating circumstances, so don't give me any shit. Look, I'm sorry I'm freaking out on you. This is just fucking with my head. Do me a favor?"

"I can try."

"See if you can track down the autopsy report for Russel Brandt. I'd feel a lot better if I could take a quick look at it."

"I'll see what I can do. Just stay calm, take the day off. Relax. I'll call you if I find anything, and you can call me if you need anything. Good?"

"Yeah, sure."

"I'm going to head back to the office and do some digging. You good here?"


Dean stood from the couch and nodded at Eric, waiting for a nod in return. It didn't look like that nod was coming, so Dean simply left and walked back out to his Crown Victoria.

Eric waited half an hour after Dean had gone, constantly checking the window to see if Dean or Johnny (or anyone else) just happened to be passing by. After he was totally sure that no one was watching, he grabbed his keys and cell phone and walked out to the Thunderbird.

The first thing he'd have to do would be to sneak into his office and get to his cubicle without anyone seeing him. There, taped to the back of his bottom drawer, Eric had a substantial amount of cash set back for an emergency. He'd hidden it at the office so Dean or the police wouldn't find it.

Next, he'd have to find out just where in Mayberry On Acid one could find and purchase an illegal firearm.

* * *

The dim, green digital clock on the T-bird's dashboard was just turning over to noon as Eric pulled into the parking garage near his office. With any luck, most of his co-workers would be out to lunch by now, making it that much easier to sneak into the office, get the cash, and get back out undetected. He took the back way into the building and used the service elevator to get up to his floor.

The large expanse of cubicles where his was located seemed to be relatively deserted. Eric made it from the elevator to his cube without seeing another soul. He'd just sat down in his chair and opened the bottom desk drawer when an unlabled DVD came whizzing by his head, bouncing off the fabric wall of his cube and plopping, motionless, on his desk.

"That code you were supposed to check for bugs this morning? Fucking failed regression tests, Eric! What the fuck have you been doing over here all day?"

Eric stood to face Kenny. Though Kenny was taller and weighed more than Eric, he knew he'd have no problem putting the guy down on the floor. Eric's right hand flexed almost involuntarily -- it had been over a year since he had hit someone, and he had missed it.

"Look, you're obviously having a bad day, Kenny, so I'm going to pretend you didn't come at me like that," Eric said slowly. His adrenal glands were spooling up something fierce, and he wanted more than anything else to just fire off an overhand right into the side of Kenny's head.

"Fuck no, Hawkins. You're the one who isn't fucking doing your job, you --"

Eric's right hand shot out quickly, coming to rest on Kenny's shoulder.

"Kenny, man. I'm out sick today. I just stopped in to get my doctor's phone number out of my desk. But something's wrong, man. This isn't like you. Come on -- I'll buy you a beer over lunch. Let's talk about what's bothering you," Eric sighed.

A large part of him wanted to take the hand resting on Kenny's shoulder and use it to tear out one of the guy's eyes -- but that was the part that had gotten him into so much trouble in the past. He'd been making every possible effort not to listen to that part.

Kenny's shoulders deflated and he nodded.

"Yeah. OK. I'm sorry, man. You really want me to talk about it?"

"Sure, Kenny," Eric said. He hoped he sounded convincing.

The two of them walked a few blocks down to a bar Kenny had picked out. Eric hadn't been to many of the bars in this town, but they all pretty much the same to him. This one was a bit dimly lit, and pretty much empty save for the bartender, a cute college girl reading @jonathansegura's first novel. Eric walked up to the bar and flashed a smile.

"Hi. Can I get a @Pepsi and a @Coors_Light?" he asked.

"Sure thing," she smiled back.

No game, indeed, Eric smirked to himself.

Eric hadn't even made it back to the table with the drinks when the doors opened. The two Russians from the night before, followed by the kid with the cornrows, walked in and headed for the bar. Eric tried to duck out of sight, but he wasn't fast enough.

"That's him! That's that nigga right there!" Cornrows yelled, pointing at Eric.

Eric dropped the drinks on the table.

"Kenny. . . leave. Now," Eric warned. His hands fell loosely at his sides, fingers stretching out.

It looked as though he was going to get the fight his brain wanted, after all.

The kid with the cornrows reached into his waistband, moving his oversized shirt aside. Nikolai, the Russian in the wifebeater, held up his hand.

"Wait. You are sure this is the man?" Nikolai asked.

You still have a chance to talk your way out of this, a part of Eric's brain said.

Quiet, you, a much louder part disagreed.

"You mean the guy who stuck you for a bunch of unlocked GSM phones and a .40 cal? Yeah, that's me."

"To come in here, you must be crazy or stupid," Nikolai shook his head. He looked at his pals, then slowly reached behind his back -- but he never got a chance to touch whatever he was reaching for. Eric rocketed forward, slamming his forehead into the bridge of Nikolai's nose. As Nikolai reared back, gushing blood, Eric's right hand shot out and grabbed Cornrows by the wrist. Before the kid could get his fingers around his gun, Eric had snapped his wrist in at least three places. To his credit, the kid didn't scream, exactly, but he did let out a high-pitched yelp.

The second Russian was just pulling the hammer back on his revolver when Eric's left foot smashed into his groin. The Russian fired wildly, lodging a .38 slug in the rafters. In a flash, Eric grabbed him by both shoulders and drove his knee into the Russian's ribcage. He heard a satisfying series of snaps and crunches before the Russian fell to the floor. The .38 clattered to the linoleum, and the Russian tried to roll over and reach for it, but Eric stomped hard on the small of his back. The Russian decided to stay put.

Cornrows was trying to use his other hand to dig out his gun, so he was completely unprepared for the solid overhand right that slammed into his temple, dropping him to the floor.

Eric whirled on Nikolai, ready to cave his face in, as well, but found the man with one hand holding his profusely bloody nose, the other held straight out in front of him.

"All right. Enough," Nikolai gurgled.

"Not quite," Eric shrugged, firing a straight left, then a corkscrew right into Nikolai's face just below the eyes. Nikolai hit the floor and stopped moving.

Eric kicked the .38 away from the second Russian -- the only one still conscious -- and rolled the man over with his foot. He knelt down and calmly dug a Camel Light from the pack, then lit it. He inhaled deeply -- God, it's going to be impossible to quit now.

"Next time, tell your boy not to waste time talking and just shoot. Would've saved you all an assload of pain. Get me?"

The Russian nodded, wheezing in pain.

"Put some ice on those ribs. Then tell your boss I want to meet him here on Friday night to discuss the holes in your security."

The Russian nodded again. Eric stood up, took another drag from his cigarette, and walked over to the bar. He opened his wallet and took out two $20 bills, which he set on the counter in front of the bartender.

"Sorry about the mess," he winked at her.

As Eric walked out, he didn't even notice that Kenny was still sitting at the table, stone-still, just staring at him as he left.

Chapter Eight

"You keep looking at your knuckles," @blondie80 said.

"I got into a fight today," Eric told his therapist.

"Now, you know that violence never solves anything," Dr. Kepler chided, making notes on her pad.

"Oh, I disagree. Violence solves a whole lot of problems. Throw enough violence at a problem, and it'll probably go away. But I'm trying to be of the opinion that it's not the preferred problem-solving method."

"That's some progress, at least."

"To be honest, Doctor, I'm more than a little disappointed in myself. I knew I could have talked my way out of the fight, but I just wanted to hit someone."

"Would this person have hurt you?"

"People, yes. And it was pretty clear they wanted to kill me. That's not the point, though. There's something I'm trying to do here. . . to become something other than a petty thug, I guess."

"And that's the reason for the somewhat monastic lifestyle you seem to have adopted since entering the program? No alcohol, no cigarettes, no sexual relationships?"

"It sounds so clinical when you say it that way. But yes, that's part of the reason. I have a feeling that. . . have you ever read Hagakure?"

"I don't believe so, no."

"Um, OK. That analogy probably won't make much sense, then. How about this. . . do you think that, with enough discipline, someone can rise above their programming? That they can become something better? Something more than they are?"

"That's kind of the whole idea of therapy."

"Then that's what I'm trying to do," Eric nodded. "Agent Dean tells me that a lot of guys in the program don't take it seriously, don't work at it. A lot of them end up in jail or dead in a few years."

"And you don't want that to be you."

It wasn't a question Dr. Kepler asked -- more of a statement of fact -- so Eric didn't bother to answer it. Instead, he checked his watch.

"Looks like our time is about up," he mentioned.

"Looks that way. Next week?"

"Until they say I can stop showing up, yeah."

Eric turned and smiled at Dr. Kepler on his way out. In another life, he would have found the thin, blonde 30-year-old almost irresistible -- she was smart, funny, and didn't seem to judge him in any way (though she wasn't much of a therapist, really -- she mainly told him things he'd already figured out). Whenever he had those feelings now, though, he just shut them off as best he could and thought about something else. He picked up his appointment card from the temp at the front desk, walked out to his car, and started the long drive east towards his apartment. After the day he'd already had, he just wanted to get some sleep.

He clicked the in-dash MP3 player over to "Lexicon Devil" by the Germs as he merged the decade-and-a-half-old Thunderbird onto I-680. After the fight with the Russians in the bar, Eric had considered taking one of their guns rather than trying to buy one, but, for some reason, he'd left all of their hardware on the floor with them. He told himself it was because the program didn't allow him to have a gun, so he didn't want a gun, but Eric knew the real reason -- if Russel was alive and after him, he'd probably never have a chance to use the thing anyway.

So Eric decided to keep the emergency fund where it was for the time being. He knew how Russel operated -- he'd just have to keep his eyes open for any sign of the man and hope he would see him coming. Then, at least, he stood a microscopic chance.

* * *

Eric had been asleep on the couch for a couple of hours when a loud knock on the door woke him.

"Shit. . . someone knocks like the po-lice," Eric mumbled groggily, rolling off the couch and stretching out the knots in his lower back.

Another loud knock.

"Coming, coming."

When Eric opened the door, he found that it was, in fact, the police on the other side. Specifically, Deputy Johnny Teal. Eric poked his head out the door and looked around.

"Boss isn't with me," Johnny told him.

"Oh. Uh, right, then. What brings you by, Deputy?"

"I think we can call each other by first names, Eric."

"Johnny. What's the reason for the visit?"

Johnny was in street clothes, Eric noticed -- the same type of khakis-and-polo combination from the night before, only in different colors. From behind his back, Johnny held up a six-pack of @Newcastle.

"I bring an olive branch," Johnny smiled. He had freakishly good teeth -- Eric guessed they were implants.

"I don't drink. But knock yourself out," Eric said, opening the door and beckoning Johnny inside.

Johnny noticed that the apartment appeared to have been refurnished recently -- there were still indentations in the floor from a much larger couch sticking out from under what looked to be a brand-new, red IKEA knockoff. The coffee table looked showroom-new, and the entire place was obsessively clean.

"I wish this was just me dropping by to hang out, Eric, but I need some help on something," Johnny started, taking a seat in a brand-new leather armchair.

"I suspected."

"I've been a cop for a long time now -- six years in the Army as an MP, four in the Sheriff's department here -- and I've never had to deal with organized crime in any real fashion. Street gangs, sure. Organized retail theft once, which was pretty cool, actually. But the capital-M Mob? I'm in over my head."

"Yeah, it's not like it was in the old days, where you pretty much knew where the mob was and who ran it. Today's organized crime is all about making money and staying out of sight as much as possible."

"So how do we go about getting a handle on the Russian problem? More to the point, who's knocking them off? Can two factions really carry off a mob war this quietly?"

"I think I'm going to be able to help you out a lot, actually. I got into a fight with the Russians from the other night today. . . before you say anything, no, it wasn't on purpose. I was dumb and walked into their bar with a co-worker without realizing where I was going."

Johnny had been getting ready to open a beer, but as soon as he heard this, he stood quickly and set the beer back on the table.

"Shit. Why didn't you tell me this earlier?"

"Um, I'm telling you now."

"Think, Eric. You just poked the hive. Don't you think we should take a look and see what the bees do when they're threatened?"

Eric blinked twice. It was a shockingly competent piece of police thinking, which he hadn't expected from Johnny. From Nathaniel, maybe, but not Johnny.

"I'll get my keys."

* * *

Johnny parked his truck, an immaculate 1989 Dodge Power Ram, in a public lot across the street from the Russian's bar, which Eric now noticed was named Alexander's. He had a cup of @Starbucks on the dash in front of him.

"So, I never got to tell you how the fight panned out."

"You're still alive, so I assume you won," Johnny smirked.

"Well, yeah. But I got them to agree to have their boss meet me in a couple of nights."

"How'd you do that?"

"I posed as a freelancer. Discuss holes in their security, as someone does seem to be murdering an awful lot of their people."

"I'm not sure the boss is going to be down with this. Scratch that -- I'm sure the boss is going to think this is a terrible idea."

"And you?"

"I think that, if we can trust you, we might as well get someone they won't suspect inside to get some more information. I figure any way we can get the bodies to stop dropping, we have to try."

"Good man."

"So can we? Trust you, I mean?"

Eric let a breath out through his mouth, slowly.

"To not get you killed? Sure. To not flip and go back to my evil ways? I'd love to say yes, but the jury's still out on that one."

"I'm just going to pretend you said 'yes.' Lot less disturbing that way," Johnny shook his head. "Black Mercedes."

Eric followed Johnny's line of sight, and the same black car from the night before was just pulling out of the alley behind the bar.

"Can't be a re-up already. We follow them, they'll lead us somewhere new," Eric suggested.

"Agree," Johnny said, starting up the truck. He followed the Mercedes up Dodge Street, heading north, keeping a few cars back.

"So I ran the plates on that car," Johnny said, sipping from his coffee as he drove.

"Registered to a nice little old lady with dementia in a nursing home with a non-Russian last name," Eric guessed.

"How'd you know that? You haven't been hacking our databases, have you?"

Eric chuckled.

"Nope. It's standard operating procedure if you want to stay ghosted. Nothing in your name, nothing to connect you to anyone or anything else. I drove a Land Rover for years that was registered to a 97-year-old schizophrenic in Temple Terrace."

Johnny nodded slowly.

"That makes sense, actually. Smart."

The Benz traveled up Dodge past 42nd Street, and traffic started to ramp up a bit. Johnny moved the truck closer, and the two of them could see that Nikolai was driving. Another man, one they hadn't seen yet, was in the passenger seat.

"Looks like you were right. They've passed where they were headed last night."

"My guess is they have business spread out all over this town. It's big enough that they can decentralize and communicate by cell and email, but small enough that they can get from anywhere to anywhere else in 20 minutes in a pinch."

"Yeah, and they get so the local lawmen don't know their faces," Johnny said as they followed the Benz past 72nd Street. A dark blue Nissan Titan sped by the driver's side of Johnny's truck, cut in front of the Benz, and slammed on the brakes inches from the Merc's front fender. The Benz slammed hard into the bed of the truck, and both vehicles screeched to a dead stop.

"What the fuck!" Johnny yelled, slamming on his brakes.

The Titan's doors flew open, and two men in black cargo pants and T-shirts hopped out holding assault rifles. They fired into the Benz's windshield, quickly dumping forty or fifty rounds into the sedan's passenger cabin.

Johnny had his radio in his hand.

"Officer needs assistance! Shots fired, 81st and Dodge!"

The two men yanked open the Mercedes and dragged out the bodies, then threw them into the bed of the Titan as if they weighed nothing. Johnny grabbed his Glock from the holster on his belt and jumped out of the Ram. Eric, not knowing what else to do, hopped out as well.

"Sheriff's Department! Drop your weapons and get down on the ground, now!" Johnny yelled.

The two men just looked at him. One of them cocked his head to the side and muttered something. Then they both got back into the Titan and tore off.

"Fuck!" Johnny hopped back into his truck, and Eric followed.

"Officer in pursuit, dark blue 2007 Nissan Titan, license HJU --" Johnny never got a chance to finish yelling the plate into the radio. Another large pickup slammed into the passenger side of the Power Ram at better than 65 miles an hour, flipping the huge old truck on its side.

* * *

Consciousness flickered in and out like a cheap candle with a burned-over wick.

Eric was hanging upside-down, the powder-blue polyester of the truck's seat belt digging into his shoulder.

He blinked -- he was on the roof of the cabin, and he could see his shoe sitting right next to his head. Eric reached out for the shoe.

He blinked -- he was half-out of the smashed passenger window. His right hand held on tightly to the black Converse Chuck Taylor that had been sitting next to his head. Eric could hear sirens off in the distance. He was face-down, and could see glass splayed all over the pavement.

He blinked -- we was laying on his back, looking up at the night sky. He tried to lift his head, but he suddenly felt like he needed to vomit. He tried, instead, to roll his head to the side, so as not to choke himself.

He blinked -- someone was shining a light in his eyes. He could smell gasoline.

"Sir? Can you hear me?" someone asked.

"Yeah," Eric coughed.

Eric blinked again, but this time, the scene didn't change on him. The light clicked off, and he saw the face of a youngish black woman staring down at him. There were streetlights blazing above, and he could hear traffic going by slowly. The truck -- or what was left of it -- was about a hundred feet away from him, in the oncoming curbside lane, flipped on its roof, all of the glass busted out. Two cops stood guard over the motionless hulk, which was cordoned off with yellow tape and flares.

"You were in a car accident, sir," the young woman said. She was wearing a dark blue T-shirt and blue vinyl gloves. The wingless caduceus inside the asterisk on the left chest of her shirt identified her as a paramedic -- about a million and a half years ago, Eric Austen had owned a couple of shirts that looked exactly the same.

"You think?" Eric tried to smile. He tried to lift his head once more, and found it much easier this time.

"Don't try to move, sir. You could have some spinal damage."

"Sir. Do I really look that old?" Eric found that his shoe was still off, and he wiggled his toes. "Look. Toes are moving. Not paralyzed."

"Not yet," the paramedic muttered.

"Zing!" Eric smiled at her.

"Look, you have a concussion. At least. You mind not making my job any harder? Just lay there and stay awake so I can get you into the ambulance, OK?"

"Fine, fine. How's Johnny?"

"Better shape than you," Eric heard Johnny grumble. He was sitting on the curb, holding a bloodied ice pack against his forehead. Another paramedic, this one a young Asian guy, was bandaging a cut on the Deputy's forearm.

"Hey, Johnny," Eric smirked, trying not to giggle.


"You get the license number of that truck that hit us?" Eric smiled widely, now unable to hold in the laughter.